Nov. 13, 2016.
“The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.” – Yann Martel
This has been a distressing election season, to say the least. In preparing for the end of it, we planned a healing service last Wednesday. In planning that service, I thought of two things: No matter how it turns out, there will be a broken America, and even though we are often overtaken by waves of media-driven rhetoric, we must find ways past it because we end up having to live in communities together, side by side.
I wrote about that for the opening of the healing service on Wednesday at the Historic Fairfax County Courthouse when I said:
“My heart is breaking tonight. My heart is breaking because we as a country have again found our way to a deep place of separation. I have thought about this a lot lately. I have thought about the difficult campaign rhetoric and the accusations and counter accusations. Then, I think about how we turn off our TVs and head to the grocery store holding – the door open for each other. I think about how we post our one-sided opinions on social media and then help dig each other out when the snow brings the city to a halt. We are national political beasts, fueled by ever-present media, who then must live our lives helping each other when there is a car accident, helping a lost child find a parent at a fair, and finding our way to kindness when our candidates win or lose. We don’t live in the halls of Congress, we live in communities that are totally dependent on all of us trusting each other, doing our part and understanding the humanity of all. We have been called together tonight at this Civil War site, to remember what happens when ideology runs rampant and we lose our ability to see the humanity in each others’ eyes. There is so much pain on all sides of this election. I can only think: How will the movement start to help us overcome our differences? Where will the first step be taken to move beyond the battles of the last century? When will we see that we are different and yet so totally dependent on each other? My deepest prayer is that tonight is when, this place where the first confederate officer of the Civil War died is where and those of us gathered here tonight is how.”
That reflection speaks to the pain that I am feeling. I have spent 10 years working in ministry, trying to figure out ways for us to talk to each other, to understand our own biases and flaws, to reflect on how we can cross borders of our own making. No matter how we voted in the presidential election, I just can’t understand how anyone believes at this point that half of the other side of the country will magically start believing everything they believe. So now that we are past the election, what are we going to do?
I want to tell you one of the reasons I got into ministry, it was because of this line from the “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel: “The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.” I still believe that. I still believe that we can have as many election cycles as we will have – and we will have campaign after campaign – but unless we do something different, we will never achieve results that are any different from the back and forth incrementalism of the last 226 years since the Constitution was ratified. In one way however, this election does feel incredibly different because of its potential to cause even deeper divisions in this experiment.
So, I too am listening and reflecting. I am trying to listen to those who are saying that we have to listen to the 60,071,650 people who voted for him. We have to listen to their pain, their disenfranchisement, their desire for change, their need for their own agency, or whichever of the many reasons they voted that way. And yet, I struggle with how we listen and care for these voices while making sure that the policies, actions and positions of the United States and all who inhabit it, don’t have their pain and anxiety addressed at the expense of others – in many cases those who have been experiencing pain in this society for centuries. How do we reconcile the changing demographics of this country – and the backlash against those demographics revealed by this election – while honoring the incredible fear, grief and despair being felt right now in communities that Unitarian Universalists have been working with to try and bring their voices, their humanity and their human dignity to the center from the margins?
I have been trying to check myself to see if I am being melodramatic, or as some say, to make it sound worse that it really is. I want to make sure that I am not just angry that folks from a vastly different perspective will now have power as opposed to my folks. But this feels so different from that. I want to share with you a Facebook post from a minister friend of mine in California from early Wednesday morning:
“SOME REAL THINGS THAT HAVE HAPPENED ALREADY. I witnessed not just one, but two, statements of intention to commit suicide last night. One friend is now recuperating from an attempt in the hospital. At my daughter’s school the principal is being asked by Mexican kids if they can keep coming to school, or are they going to have to go to Mexico. My ex-husband overheard some 5th graders saying that slavery is coming back. Another friend of mine awaiting a transplant is concerned about whether or not she will continue to get health care, in other words, whether she will live or not. I am doing my best to keep going in a hopeful direction, and I realize that resting in despair is a luxury that many cannot afford, but I am human and utterly despondent, for now. I will turn in time, but not yet.”
This is only one of a handful of comments I have heard about this kind of deep fear and pain. I have heard and seen stories from people I know who themselves or their children have already been involved with bullying, being threatened with behavior that would be called sexual assault, and racial and homophobic taunts. I also can’t imagine what it must be like to be a woman or a parent and to have the new leader of the free world be someone who has caused such enormous pain with his words and his deeds. I am ready to listen to all who are in pain. I am committed to the continued ministry of bringing people together to share stories like at our Finding Common Ground event to end gun violence. I am willing to blink first for a chance for real transformation to occur. I am willing not to have to be right. I am willing to be as open and welcoming as possible, but I will never, never stop fighting for justice, equality and human dignity, and against discrimination, prejudice, racism, ableism, misogyny, patriarchy, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia.
So what does this mean for the future of all of us as individuals and as a congregation? What does this mean for the communities we live in, side by side with the neighbors who had the different yard signs? What does this mean for how we practice this faith for the 21st Century?
That is such a difficult question for me personally in a week that feels like the entire future of this country has changed. It feels as if there has been a bubble that has burst for many in the white liberal community, a bubble that now perhaps will help us better understand how marginalized communities have felt for years, having to deal with the constant pain of their hopes and dreams being disregarded. That has made me reflect even more deeply about our efforts regarding racial justice. I have been wondering, does this all mean that we don’t ever put up a Black Lives Manner banner because of how it has been a challenge to the comfort and identity of a wide swath of voters, or does this mean that we make it bigger and more visible than ever imagined to stand with those who are even now more vulnerable. Does this mean that we do outreach and service into working class white neighborhoods that typically vote Republican or do we organize with great fervor for the coming political and social challenges. What will we do moving forward?
I think that a big part of the struggle for humanity when tensions reach this level of conflict is to resist the temptation to focus completely on the people who voted rather than the problems that caused the vote. Thich Nhat Hanh says: “… our enemy is not the other person. Our enemy is the violence, ignorance and injustice in us and in the other person.” These words sing out for the need of alternatives to cycles of violence that include revenge and retribution, and I believe that being aware of and breaking these cycles can be a vital role for the voices of Unitarian Universalists if we are ever going to organize and start a revolution of love. And I don’t want to just say we need a revolution of love and hope that you feel better when you leave here. I really mean that there has to be some way to break this mess that we have reached in our communal lives. The conditions that led to this vote need to be changed and that will never happen by us yelling at the other one and hoping they will get what we are telling them and we will get whatever they are yelling back.
Many faiths, have moral belief systems that tell them the time has come to take new risks in promoting peace and justice. For example, according to Aviezer Ravitzky, the author of “The Concept of Shalom in Traditional Jewish Sources,” the Jewish rabbinic text’s concept of shalom “primarily signifies a value, an ethical category – it denotes the overcoming of strife, quarrel and social tension, the prevention of hostility and war. This concept although still steeped in religious tradition and “depicted as a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace” is also however thought to be a part of a normative moral belief system which believes that “the pursuit of peace is the obligation of the individual.”
When religious communities are at their best, they help our historical human struggle to overcome our own flaws. This continues to be a long and difficult struggle. I have gone from scorning communities of faith to believing that progressive communities of faith practicing hope and love will lay the foundation to support nonviolent revolutions of change especially when there is a need for planning and a long-term commitment. This may be the defining focus of our calling as we enter in this post-election world.
Walter Wink, the theologian and author who has taught me much about nonviolent revolutions is someone I have been thinking about all week. He says that, “Nonviolent revolutions never happen by accident. They are the outcome of grassroots training, discipline, organizing and hard work.” And revolutions, especially revolutions of love, call for a commitment to a greater good and what some might call a higher self. But this call to our higher self is a risky proposition. It asks us if we really want to overcome our differences. I have already said that I am willing to try to bring forth this revolution of love and that discrimination, prejudice, racism, ableism, misogyny, patriarchy, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, will ever be OK. If we undertake this revolution we will encounter these along the way and perhaps the most important point is that we will have to understand how to both confront them and yet radically engage those in whom it resides.
If I were a Christian, I think I would have to agree with Wink when he says that for Christians at least, “the ultimate religious question of our time is no longer the Reformation’s “How can I find a gracious God?” it is instead, “How can I find God in my enemies?” This is a radical call to love. And that is what this is going to take – a radical, proactive, unceasing, planned, long-term and revolutionary movement of love.
Part of my deep appreciation for Walter Wink is his belief that being an example of love in revolutions of change is in our own self-interest. He says, “It is my own self-interest to recognize that my opponents have jobs or mortgaged houses that tie them to the existing economic and political system. They too are afraid they are losing their grip on the world. They need to be reassured that revolution will not strip them of all means of making a livelihood or all that hard-won security,” and it feels like that is what at least some of these 60 million voters are saying.
But here is another thing about a revolution of love as a colleague of Dr. King – the Rev. James Bevel – said, “We are not just fighting for our rights, but for the good of the whole society.”
We have to have a long-term strategy of radical engagement that fights for the good of the whole society. This may be a hard thing to think about from either side of this election, because it is certainly not the current prevailing thought, and for most, it feels like it shouldn’t be. But this does lead me back to the reason progressive religious communities like UUCF are so desperately needed for what lies ahead. Fighting for anything can take its toll and calls for the deepest soul searching. Standing up to the “powers” or forces that are resistant to change in the world, can take its toll emotionally, physically, mentally and certainly spiritually as it has for most of us this week. To avoid being turned into what one is fighting, there needs to be a commitment to doing the inner work necessary to stay spiritually fit. There needs to be an element of humility, reflection and self-understanding when you are fighting the flaws in the world, lest we fall into our own flaw of self-righteousness.
The potential for evil, or to reflect the darkness of the oppressor, is something that is in all of us. It is difficult to admit, but we must call out and resist the shadow side of what we are trying to change. I agree with Wink’s statement that, “People who engage in nonviolent protest without at least some awareness of this cesspool of violence within them, can actually jeopardize the lives of their compatriots.” I have often thought about this while watching peace rallies turn angry with violent rhetoric and mob-like behaviors.
You see, we do have choice, for change is at our door. It seems like all generations have these choices to make. Alice Walker said, “To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves. … We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die. The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrows, is always a measure of what has gone before.”
No matter what side of the vote you were on this week, this election is the beginning of a new and undefined future. I am already feeling that revolutions of change are in the air and we must decide as people of this Unitarian Universalist faith, the grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, and the sorrows. So again today, I ask us to remember what happens when ideology runs rampant and we lose our ability to see the humanity in the eyes of the other. I ask how will the movement start to overcome our differences? I ask, where will the first step be taken to move beyond the battles of the last century? And I ask, when will we see that we are different and yet so totally dependent on each other? My deepest prayer continues to be that today is when, this place is where and all of us moving forward from here is how.